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The class struggle

Peter Smith previews the issues likely to dominate the annual round of teacher union conferences.

This year the Secondary Heads Association starts the conference season. Then, one after another, come the gatherings of the three largest unions, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. But will their proceedings be more than the annual whine festivals of competing teacher appellations which some critics allege they are?

A great deal. Gillian Shephard, doing the circuit for the first time - though (oddly) not invited by the NUT - will discover that this year's agendas are strikingly similar, and that the debates take place in much the same atmosphere.

One reason is that national teachers' leaders (even those who have built their reputations by shooting from the lip) know that their grassroots members want them to present a united, coherent professional voice. They are therefore less and less inclined to public squabble. Another reason is that conference delegates will be thinking as much about post-election prospects for education as about the situation here and now. (That, incidentally, explains why David Blunkett and Don Foster will be energetically putting themselves about this Easter. Politicians of all persuasions - Mrs Shephard included - will be sizing up the teacher constituency and how to capture it.)

Little of this jumps off the pages of SHA's agenda, perhaps the only organisation which could, in 1995, describe its pre-annual dinner drinks party as a "pre-prandial reception", or use its yearly showpiece conference to mount worthy seminars about the partnership between schools and educational publishers, or school libraries as a resource for skills development.

But the conference will be very different from the other-worldly senior management chatfest it might seem to be. Not a policy-making synod, the SHA conference will nonetheless set the scene for later debates at other venues.

Despite a galaxy of speaker talent (Brighouse, Morrissey, Marland, Blunkett, Maden et al), the most interesting speech is likely to come from SHA's own president, Peter Downes. A Cambridge local management of schools messianic who, with the Education Reform Act, got less than he bargained for, Downes has become one of the Government's most astringent critics. Hell hath no fury like a shaman scorned. The dangerously anodyne title of his presidential address - "Investing for Achievement by All" is the amber light.

He could speak merely about the most visible impact of current Government educational funding policies: their refusal to fund this year's 2.7 per cent pay increase in full. His audience will certainly be surprised if he does not mention that - and if he is silent, they will talk up the issue in embarrassingly well-documented questions to Mrs Shephard herself. No matter how well briefed, she will be hard put to it to justify convincingly her description of the settlement as "tough but manageable", least of all to the front-line managers themselves.

But will Downes go further? Will his speech explore one of the most important underlying themes of all the year's conferences, the funding mechanisms themselves?

These are now so arcane that anyone who ever tried to understand them has given up (including the School Teachers' Review Body), and the issue will run through every unions' debates. And it will not be good enough if Mrs Shephard claims that it's all right really, since we will all be ultimately safe in Kenneth Clarke's famously sensitive hands.

Neither will it suffice for David Blunkett to make warm but unquantified promises, which mainly rely upon Labour's having been so long out of office that there's no track record of honoured commitments for anyone to remember.

Nor will it cut much ice if Don Foster reminds us - yet again - that if pigs were to sprout feathers, that if the Lib-Dems were to form the next government, and that if the economic situation allowed, then they would pour more money into discredited fiscal plumbing.

The funding issue will surface in different ways at different conferences, but neither in highly technical discussions about Treasury public spending rounds, standard spending assessments, nor the desirability or otherwise of public sector internal markets, nor the Alice-through-the-Looking-Glass debate the bright but maverick George Walden has re-opened over opt-ins. The sharpest focus will be the ATL, NUT and NASUWT debates on class size.

Some will allege that battle-hungry union activists are seeking a safer industrial action trench, now that Dearing has reduced the likelihood of national curriculum hand-to-hand conflict. There is the risk that journalists, the professional commentators whom many teachers simultaneously court and distrust, will lose interest in an anecdotal, over-debated, but statistically under-argued case.

The problem is that the issue is essentially qualitative rather than quantitative. Gillian Shephard and her DFE predecessors are infuriatingly right when they say that evidence on class size is, to quote the assiduously teacher-friendly but party-loyal Sir Malcolm Thornton, "ambiguous". She seems irritatingly unassailable when she asserts that "there is no conclusive linkage between resources and attainment", and states that Office for Standards in Education reports "have made no suggestion that class sizes are too large".

And yet, and yet... Teachers may not be able to specify arithmetically - for Treasury purposes at least - the precise point at which the number of children they have to teach lessens their professional responsiveness to the learning needs of an individual child. The unavoidable truth - no more for Gillian Shephard than for David Blunkett or Don Foster - is that no independent school has ever marketed itself on a brochure guarantee never to include a child (primary or secondary) in a group of less than 25. No independent school has ever boasted of keeping its unit costs - and hence fees - down by increasing teaching group sizes to the maximum level their teachers - for fear of the boot - will tolerate.

As always, there will be an element of bread (or maybe in the case of SHA, cake) and circuses about this year's teachers' conferences.

There will be a sense in which the teachers' unions will use - and maybe abuse - public opportunities to send private and sometimes introverted tribal messages to their members.

But after all the newspaper stories about union conference shenanigans, one message will clearly emerge. Whatever the claims and counter claims, something has gone badly wrong and no one knows quite how to get it right. It cannot be right that this Easter teacher organisations will gather to express collective disenchantment pessimism and stress.

Gillian Shephard promises five years' stability. Teachers do not want half a decade of doing what they are told by a government, however benignly dictatorial it might be.

David Blunkett promises change. But while teachers want something more substantial than mere mood music, they are not yearning for a period of further change and turbulence, however well-intentioned. Don Foster is the Fortinbras who may never have the opportunity to wax eloquent over the political corpses.

The worst scenario is that the teacher conference season will see the profession turn in upon itself. Even worse than that is that it will do so in public.

But I do not wish to end on a note of gloom. Education is now high on the political and public agenda.

That is uncomfortable for politicians, and testing for teachers. It will give parents difficult choices, with precious little real diversity.

But at least it's better than the comment Lord St John of Fawsley (then Norman St John Stevas) made to me more than 20 years ago: "There are no votes in education, you know". His patrician, cynical aside sounds very out of touch with the next fortnight's uncomfortable reality.

Peter Smith is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

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